The idea of the global ranking of universities has become a veritable means by which we assess the performance of various universities across the continent. It is no longer news that most African universities struggle to make some visible showing in the forefronts of the ranking. For instance, in the Times Higher Education 2014-2015 world university ranking, European, Asian and mostly United States’ universities occupied the first 100 slots. Africa made its first appearance through the University of Cape Town, South Africa, at number 124, followed by the University of Witwatersrand, another South African institution at slot 251. Out of 400 universities, no Nigerian universities, federal, state and private made the list. In the January 2016 edition of the Webometric ranking of universities, University of Ibadan was first in Nigeria, 16th in Africa and 1296th in the world. Obafemi Awolowo came in at 35th in Africa and 2119th in the world.

We often mostly deride the ranking as being unrepresentative and loaded against African institutions. The argument usually goes that such global assessments, for instance, Transparency International’s Corruption Index, fails to take into consideration the contextual realities on ground in the issues at stake. Thus, ranking African universities does more harm than good because these institutions are made to compete on academic standards that fail the text of comparative adequacy. However, any improvement in positioning is often celebrated and flashed across multiple media spaces. The University of Ibadan website celebrates this webometric ranking as the first in Nigeria. No one, however, can grudge the premier university its celebratory moment.

Ranking of all kinds measures specific performance metrics that statistically outline how a university is perceived as a center of learning and research. There are several lessons to learn from what we see and where we are on the ranking lists. The first such lesson is essentially symbolic. And it symbolizes national degradation. In other words, we learn through these rankings the value we place, as a state, on educational matter, compared to, say, the United States which conspicuously dominates the rankings, whatever the standards of assessment.

Apart from the national economy, education constitutes a significant component of national development which no nation can ever hope to toy with without dire consequences that goes beyond a mere downgrading on any ranking framework. It is in this sense that Nigeria needs to look beyond lamenting or celebrating any ranking improvement or slump. Noel Castree once remarked, ‘Education is political.’ What is seriously missing from that fundamental statement is a huge and bold exclamation mark to press home the significance of, in this case, higher education to the national development of any state. In fact, the human condition, as far as I am concerned, is made more palatable because human beings have, over the years, developed a learning trajectory that imposes knowledge on human limitations. It is in this sense that universities, for instance, constitute one of the most important discoveries of mankind.

If higher education constitutes a serious phenomenon that ensures human survival, at the level of the nation-state, it fundamentally becomes an institutional representation of national discovery of knowledge, and its utilization for development and progress. We can hypothesize that the extent to which a nation-state can function in developmental terms is conditional on its significant human capital (SHC) which is determined by the state of its higher education. There is therefore no nation that can assuredly rise above the quality of its own SHC or its higher education objective. In the third world, and especially in Africa and particularly in Nigeria, the truth of the disconnection between the SHC and national development is brought home forcefully and unfortunately.

For instance, demographic data demonstrates that Nigerians all around the globe constitute one of the highest achieving immigrant groups in the world, and the achievements cut across all areas of human endeavours—space technology, education, science, art, healthcare, politics, etc. Yet, this high feat of optimization and productive innovation has not been transplanted to the Nigerian development dynamics as instigation for national progress. Nigerian universities can hardly be regarded as sites of optimization and productive innovation. In actually fact, they represent one sad index of our underdevelopment, especially in terms of governance, research outputs and relevant curricular dynamics. It is doubtful that Nigeria will ever produce another Nobel Laureate, groomed within the Nigerian university environment. This is because while the universities that produce the Nobel Laureates do so in the context of cutting-edge research that are defined by the capacity to transform national developmental dynamics, Nigerian universities are grievously dissociated from Nigeria’s developmental efforts.

While the global community is vast transforming into a knowledge society, Nigeria appears to be standing right at the margin of significant happenings in academic context. Francis Bacon gave the world the fundamental thought that knowledge equals power. And that power translates into the capacity higher education has to induce development. Education is a badge of development. Higher education particularly represents a nation’s window into the global flow of ideas, dynamics, strategies, paradigms and best practices. Higher educational institutions facilitate the process by which insights are adopted, adapted, domesticated and calibrated for optimal national rejuvenation. But, at the conceptual level, it seems that Nigeria’s educational system is defined more as ‘tertiary’ than as ‘higher’ education. Tertiary education is distinguished by certification as a meal ticket; higher education is defined by research, discovery and innovation. And these three indices, in all truth, cannot be said to define any Nigerian university today. I doubt this should raise any eyebrow, except from sentimental patriots.

But not even a sentimental patriot can deny our educational deficits: (i) Widespread indiscipline among both lectures and students; (ii) Declining research productivity and pedagogy; (iii) Lack of technical skills and knowledge of curriculum development and innovation and among lecturers across disciplines; (iv) Falling academic and moral standards; (v) Lack of institutional mechanism to deal effectively with the quantitative and qualitative dimension of knowledge and to sustain relevant reforms within exponential explosion of knowledge; (vi) Corruption, arrogance and abuse of power among the leadership and governance of university; (vii) Underfunding of the university; (viii) Irrelevant and obsolete curricula; (ix) Governance deficit and disconnect among major stakeholder and university authority. This dampening list can be multiplied ad nauseam. A critical peep into the 2006 Educational Sector Analysis will somehow leave a perspective reader deeply depressed.

Essentially, Nigeria’s tertiary educational system measures transformatory knowledge by the numbers of certificate a person is able to amass. This debilitating but ingrained culture ensures that we have quite a number of PhDs and educated people who lack the competences that a developmental state requires to move beyond development rhetoric. Let me reiterate this with a terrible joke I received sometimes ago on my WhatsApp: A group of Nigerian lecturers were on a trip. Immediately they boarded the plane, the captain announced that the plane they will be flying is a product of their students. At this announcement, many of them grew very frightened and disembarked immediately, except one. When asked why he remained seated, he said: ‘I have no reason to fear the plane crashing out of the sky. If what we taught the students is anything to go by, this plane will not even leave the ground.’ If the existing critical mass of capacities in Nigeria cannot fly a plane, make pencils, build bridges or process early warning systems in case of disaster management, then how far away are we from achieving a knowledge society?     

With these deficits, it is certain Nigeria is not ready to create a university of the future that rides on the knowledge revolution to facilitate qualitative development dynamics. Those who hold the future, I dare say, are those who are willing to take the risk of researching it. Over five decades since independence and it seems we have hardly moved forward to any point of radical rehabilitation. On the contrary, we seem to be compounding our own human capital deficit. But then, lamentation does not solve any problem; reform does. And Nigeria’s salvage point rests on unequivocal institutional reform. There are three focal points which assiduously undermine our educational effort today—governance framework, curricular dynamics and research philosophy. And these three also, fortunately constitute critical reform frameworks for ensuring a radical transition from tertiary to higher education.

Governance, it seems to me, is key here. It is the steering mechanism that calibrates curricular and research directions. Governance issues range from the excessive oversight of tertiary education that ensures that the delivery of education is terribly fragmented beyond measure, to the mute issue of corruption in university governance across Nigeria. To quote an erstwhile vice chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Professor Olufemi Bamiro, governance, as a reform locus, would actuate the following reform questions: (a) How can the institution build the best leadership team? (b) What are the vision and mission statements, and what are the specific goals that the university is seeking to achieve? (c) In what niches(s) will it pursue excellence in teaching and research? (d) What is the likely cost of the proposed qualitative leap, and how is it giving to be funded? (g) How will success be measured? What monitoring systems, outcome indicators, and accountability mechanisms will be used?

Apart from ensuring institutional stability in the midst of global and national multiplicity of contested ideological, economic cultural and political contexts from where the university must derive its objectives and direction, the responsibility of a morally responsible, administratively competent and intellectually savvy governance team in any Nigerian university is to facilitate networks in terms of research and teaching. This will be a network of different universities in Nigeria conjoined by research similarities. For instance, universities in the North could be associated with a research initiative that studies Islam, nomadic education, Sahel agriculture and desertification. Universities in the South could network around the oil economy, militancy, ethnic minorities issues, ecological issues like erosion, industrial studies, agriculture, mineral resources, urbanisation, and many other issues.

What, for instance, makes the California Institute of Technology (CALTECH) the best school in the world in terms of global ranking? It is the combination of all these factors. But most especially, there is an academic-industry institutionalised partnership which ensures that research is backed by solid intelligence that grounds it in real developmental issues. The MIT-Silicon Valley experiment provides a template of the way for the universities of the future to go. The Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy becomes, in this regard, a timely framework which can serve as a fulcrum for public-private research initiative that could jumpstart the research networks collaborations of the future. To arrive at this point of global reckoning requires paying significant attention to four reform exigencies: (a) rethinking the idea of university autonomy away from a policing and micro-managing to a facilitative approach that significantly enables university governance and regulatory system; (b) the need for due care and sophistication in the quality of people appointed by governments into university governing councils; (c) the urgent need for a theory-practice mix in university staffing of faculties; and (d) designation of universities as centres of excellence based on strategic consideration of their comparative advantage.

Higher education, through the harnessing of the significant human capital (SHC), constitutes Nigeria’s optimization window into global and national relevance. It is the engine room for socioeconomic fast tracking. But the first condition for such a rapid progress is to ensure that the fish does not get rotten from the head. Governance becomes our litmus reform test. The issue of the global ranking of Nigerian universities would really be a foregone conclusion once these universities are serving the developmental purposes Nigeria requires of them. In other words, rather than agitating about the ranking, let us declare a state of emergency on our universities.